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More Utahns raising relatives' children due to parents' substance abuse

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18 2013 7:46 p.m. MDT

Nathaniel and Miriam Childs are raising their nephew, Andre. The Taylorsville couple have guardianship of the 10-year-old boy and are raising him as their own. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They're in practically every neighborhood, grandparents and other relatives who have stepped up to raise their grandchildren or other child relatives.

According to the Children's Service Society's analysis of U.S. Census Bureau figures, 10 percent of Utah children are being raised by a grandparent or other related adult because their birth parents are unable to care for them.

They are couples like Nathaniel and Miriam Childs, who are raising their nephew, Andre. The Taylorsville couple have guardianship of the 10-year-old boy and are raising him as their own.

As is the case with so many children being raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles and even siblings, Andre's mother, Miriam's sister, is addicted to drugs. Experts say poverty and mental illness also play a role.

After watching the boy flounder in the care of relatives out of state, the couple made a deliberate choice to give the boy the stability and predictability his life had lacked, Nathaniel Childs said.

Married for 32 years, Nathaniel and Miriam Childs had raised three children. They were at place in life where they were contemplating a future as empty nesters and making plans for their retirement.

At the same time, Andre's life was becoming increasingly unstable, Nathaniel Childs said. At one point, Andre's mother asked the couple if anything happened to her if they would take care of Andre. They said they would. A short time later, he was living in their home.

"All of sudden it becomes very real. You have to stick by your commitment. I am, and my wife is, really committed to this child and his successes," he said.

Although they are experienced parents and Miriam Childs is a schoolteacher, raising a relative's child poses different issues than parenting a biological child.

Not knowing where to turn, Nathaniel Childs called the state Division of Child and Family Services. The division referred him to the Children's Service Society's Grandfamilies program.

The program helped guide the couple through the legal and emotional challenges of parenting their nephew. In particular, Nathaniel Childs wanted legal guardianship to ensure he and his wife could make decisions on Andre's behalf.

The Grandfamilies program also reassured them that they are among tens of thousands of Utahns who are providing kinship care to grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other relatives.

"The thing people don't know is, they're not the only ones in the situation they're in," Childs said. "As soon as you're able to convince yourself you want support of people in similar situations, you find your stories are strikingly similar."

Some families hesitate to reach out for help because of shame, says Jacci Graham, co-executive director of the Children's Service Society. Academic researchers from Utah Valley University found some family members had been toughing it out on their own before reaching out for the assistance of the society.

On Wednesday, the agency rolled out the website grandfamiliesutah.org to assist families online. The website provides practical advice and referrals to programs and services, including support groups offered by the Children's Service Society.

Elder Merrill Bateman, former president of BYU and an emeritus general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he has become painfully aware of the significant challenges these families face as he has served on a statewide committee on kinship care.

When he first learned of the issues, Elder Bateman said he reasoned, "They raised children before. Why can't they raise the second generation?"

Most can, but they need support to deal with children who may be damaged by neglect and abuse, he said. Some grandparents need help moving past the shame of their own children's dysfunction.

"These people end up with real challenges," said Elder Bateman, who has led a kinship committee as part of the state Initiative on Utah’s Children.

Graham said the website helps to extend the reach of the nonprofit agency's Grandfamilies program. However, more resources are needed to provide additional support to families.

Today, some 82,000 Utahns are raising children in kinship arrangements, compared with 42,000 in 2000.

Graham said when she examined the 2000 Census data, she wondered aloud, "How on earth can that get any worse?"

By 2010, the number had nearly doubled.

"When I looked at that and realized that was one in every 10 children, I was astounded," she said.

If all the children living in kinship arrangements in Utah (most often with grandparents) were in foster homes, Graham said, their care would cost the state nearly $3 billion a year, supposing an annualized cost of about $40,000 a year per child.

"It would bankrupt our state," she said. "It's the least effective for long-term outcomes for children."

The Children's Service Society plans to ask the Utah Legislature to appropriate $2.8 million in ongoing funds to expand the reach of its Grandfamilies program.

Childs said he believes the website will be a boon to families raising other relatives' children.

"Man, hundreds of people are going to be hitting that website hard" for help with their unanswered questions, he said.

"The biggest thing was, I didn't know or understand the level of resources available to me and the intricacies of getting through the process," Childs said.

Becoming a guardian also churned many emotional issues. Childs said he is grateful he and his wife had support of peers to negotiate those feelings.

"This is an emotional time, and other people understand what I am going through," he said.

Most of the time, Nathaniel and Miriam Childs say they enjoy the joys and challenges of guiding another child through adolescence.

They're holding off on providing a cellphone until Andre is older, despite his frequent protests. He has a set bed time, and the couple enforces limits on the types of video games he is allowed to play.

As for parenthood the second time around, Nathaniel Childs says he relishes the time he and Andre spend riding bikes and playing basketball.

"I'm committed to the cause," he said. "If I weren't committed to the cause, I'd be resentful of the time and energy I spend. He's so much fun to have around, you forget all that. You just go and live your life."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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